Javier Baez’s surge of playoff highlights, and co-NLCS MVP honors, no surprise to Cubs teammates

Javier Baez’s surge of playoff highlights, and co-NLCS MVP honors, no surprise to Cubs teammates

In a way, it was fitting the Cubs secured the final out they needed to end a 71-year World Series drought on another spectacular play by Javier Baez. 

With one out in the top of the ninth, Los Angeles Dodgers pinch hitter Yasiel Puig chopped a grounder to shortstop Addison Russell, who fielded it and threw to Baez at second base with Carlos Ruiz bearing down on the bag. 

Baez played the pivot perfectly and fired a missile to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to earn the Cubs their first National League pennant since 1945. 

“To be honest, we only want to get one man,” Russell said. “If we get two, that’s sweetening the pot. And we got two.”

Baez, along with starter Jon Lester, was named as a National League Championship Series co-MVP as Wrigley Field shook in a raucous celebration. His barrage of highlight-reel plays grew from stunning to expected with each one, like when he fielded a ground ball, hustled to tag out Andrew Toles and fired to first for a mesmerizing double play in the first inning. 

The Cubs have always known Baez has the instincts and baseball I.Q. to be a defensive whiz no matter where he plays, but to do it on this stage as a 23-year-old who a year ago was a utility guy who struck out too much and only appeared in 28 regular season games makes it that much more impressive.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities] 

“This guy never faltered, he accepted his role as being a bench player and kind of a platoon guy, that’s hard to do at 20 or whatever he is,” Lester said. “You can ask (catcher David Ross) about that, he did that at an older age where he kind of had to accept the backup role. It’s a hard thing to do, it’s a hard thing to swallow your pride. This guy did it, he put the team first, and to be at where we’re at right now, to be a part with him and to be named that is very humbling for me, because I know where he was at, what he’s been through, and the struggle he’s gone through the last two years.”

Added Lester: “I know this is kind of the tip of the iceberg for him.”

Starter Kyle Hendricks, who dazzled over 7 1/3 innings of shutout, facing-the-minimum ball, said Baez’s first-inning double play helped calm things down and give the Cubs some momentum for what could’ve been a nervy evening at Wrigley Field. 

“He's the most natural baseball player I've ever seen play the game,” Hendricks said. “His instincts in game are just top notch. And that was another play go today that was huge. The first guy getting on, to make that play and turn that double play set such a tone for the game.”

Baez did make an uncharacteristic error in the second inning, bobbling a rolling ground ball off the bat of Josh Roddick to allow the Dodgers right fielder to reach (he was picked off shortly thereafter). But that turned out to only be a blip on Baez’s evening, which started and ended with those impressive double plays. 

“When he goes out there he's not afraid of making a mistake, and that's big thing when you get players that are en masse not concerned about making mistakes, really good stuff can happen,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That's, he leads the pack with that.”

While the Cubs marveled at Baez’s transcendent play in the National League Division Series and the NLCS, everyone on the team, and in Wrigley Field on Saturday and watching on TV, is waiting to see what he can do for a World Series encore. 

“Everybody loves Javy. I love Javy,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “He’s an unbelievable player, and unbelievable athlete, and I know that it isn’t over yet. He will do it one more time.” 

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”